Growing up, I devoured stories about the camel caravans and the merchants that traveled the Silk Road. I fell in love with the idea that these caravans were constantly moving, winding their way through unknown territories.
It’s no wonder that I grew up loving to travel, to experience new cultures, and to be on the move…always on the move.
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Living in and traveling extensively through Turkey, I could easily imagine the caravans making their way across the barren steppes. Even today, caravanserais are speckled throughout Anatolia and still welcome travelers on the road. No, they no longer set up camp in the courtyard, but these modern day visitors might still take a meal and watch some entertainment.
What is a Caravanserai?
Basically, a caravanserai was an inn. In truth, it was much more than an inn. Yes, it had places for people to sleep, but it was much more. A caravanserai would be a stone-walled compound, an enclosure that had space to house people, animals, and even put up tents in the courtyard, and services were provided for you.
Originally built by the Seljuks as the first insurance against dessert bandits, the caravanserais were spaced one full day’s journey apart from each other. This would be between 30-40 kilometers. It would provide a safe night’s rest, food, and services that the animals or men would need.
Need a shave? The village barber would be called. Need to shoe your horse? The furrier would be there. Needless to say, towns rapidly sprung up near and around these caravanserai and increased the possibility for trade and commerce. The other important part of the caravanserai was the “hamam” or Turkish bath.
Jim and I visited caravanserais wherever we could find them. The basic structure is the same, a large square with walls usually 30 feet high or so, hewn from the local rock. The main door is set in the middle of the front wall, in a large rectangular frame. It is typically decorated in geometric shapes that make an arch or cone.
And as with most Muslim art or architecture, there is an absence of human or animal likenesses. Except for the doors, the walls were flat and impenetrable, and because of their height you can see a caravanserai for miles.
The interiors of the caravanserai were similar as well. As you walk through the iron door, there are covered rooms open to the outside forming a sort of colonnade on the perimeter.
This is where animals and men alike slept and were taken care of by the various tradesmen. You could be assured to find a cobbler, doctor, veterinarian, cook, whatever service you could possibly need was accommodated, similar to a rest stop on the highways of today.
As you wander in, the inner courtyard is open. In the very center of my favorite one is a mosque. Again, today there are traveler’s mosques built in many of the gas stations as you crisscross Anatolia. Sometimes it is a full-fledged domed building complete with a miniature minaret, but other times it is a small, simple hut identifiable only with the word “mesjid” stenciled on it. It provides a quiet place to pray, and that tradition still stands today.
Can I Visit a Caravanserai?
Today the caravanserais are mostly set up as museums where you can see farm utensils or cooking equipment. Most of the implements are old, but not necessarily from caravan times. In fact, some of these tools might still be in use, especially in the smaller villages.
My favorite caravanserai along the Turkish Silk Road is in Aksaray. It is open every day and cost a mere 3TL. to enter. If you are visiting the Cappadocia region, many people go to the Sarıhan Caravanserai to experience a Turkish night of delicious food, whirling dervishes, and sometimes exotic belly-dancing. All the hotels will set up these excursions for you, and the fee will also include transportation to and from the caravanserai.
Good Reading about Caravanserais and the Silk Road in Turkey
There are many caravanserais in Turkey, and you can visit most of them. Some are in better condition than others, but they are all set up in a similar fashion. These remaining open carvansarais provide a romantic glimpse of what travel along the ancient Silk Road may have been like.
Does the Silk Road call to you? There are plenty of places to still experience parts of it, like these caravanserais in Turkey!